The record of a conversation carried out with artist-novelist Lawrence Burton from Tuesday 24th February 2009 to Thursday 7th January 2010. Mainly interesting for biographical details, in-depth discussion of musical influences, and historically ironic comments about Amanda Fuckin’ Palmer.
Lawrence Burton: Okay, sorry in advance for any questions you’ve already been asked a million times before, and although I’m pretty certain this will be one of them, I notice you seem to have sung a couple of tracks in Esperanto, so what gives?
Daphne Lawless: Who can fail to be impressed by Esperanto? A language devised by an oculist untrained in linguistics, living in a backwater part of Poland-now-Belarus, made up out of whatever spare parts he could find lying around; and it has hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of speakers to this day, original literature, translations of most of the great works of the ethnic languages, even children being raised with it as their first language. Zamenhof actually made his language workable and useful, which, for example, Tolkien never did.
I’m not an active member of the movement at the moment because I have other things to do, but I must say that international Esperantist gatherings are actually quite incredible. You’ve got a Serbian, an Argentine, an Australian and a couple of Chinese over in a corner, and they’re talking the same language which doesn’t belong to any of them. They’re certainly talking with more fluency and mutual confidence than if they all started using what is actually the defacto international language, Bad English – aka Engrish.
Plus let’s be honest, it makes commercial sense. Esperantists will buy anything in Esperanto. Those two tracks on Undinal Songs have gotten orders from France and Slovakia, and those are only the ones that the record company tells me about. I actually got a front page positive review in one of the major Esperanto newspapers, no lie. A medium term project is an EP made up of Esperanto translations of Small Group Psychosis songs.
Lawrence Burton: I had no idea that it was effectively a working language and there’s something kind of inspiring about that; and I take the point about Tolkien whose Elvish I suppose I’d lump in with Klingon. Do people who learn Klingon use it to talk about anything other than Star Trek? I don’t think I’ve even had that many conversations about Star Trek in English.
Daphne Lawless: There’s one dude who tried raising his kid with Klingon as his first language. He got stuck because the Star Trek jx guys had forgotten to put useful words like table into the vocabulary; plus, it’s actually virtually impossible for humans to pronounce – all the sounds are possible but the combinations just hurt, so they don’t actually get it right on Star Trek most of the time.
Lawrence Burton: Language is fascinating, and particularly when it comes to things which just don’t translate that well. For example, there’s a Nahuatl verb which, I kid you not, is most closely rendered as to drop something upon the ground causing a slapping sound, so maybe Klingons just don’t have tables.
Anyway, why the change from Daphne Lawless to Vostok Lake? I had the impression of both being very much your own thing rather than collaborative efforts with other people.
Daphne Lawless: The adoption of a stage name that sounds like a band was due to the fact that it gets far more respect from venues. Singer-songwriters are expected to be rather fey young women – or occasionally men – handling an acoustic guitar and staring soulfully into the audience as they whinge about their love lives; and then I get up there with my array of electronics and screaming my head off as I whinge about my love life, and people don’t know how to handle it. The other factor is that I have other things to do with my life under my real name and I don’t particularly like the streams merging.
Lawrence Burton: I must admit Daphne Lawless does not suggest to me pastel songs about forgetting to send a birthday card, but point taken.
I have to ask: Faction Paradox opera – one hears rumours…
Daphne Lawless: Lawrence Miles has himself said that he thinks that the ideal format for Faction Paradox narratives would be opera, but he doesn’t think he could write appropriate words; but I should say no more until certain ideas I have have firmed up.
Lawrence Burton: I gather you perform live with some frequency. Would you regard that as the main thing, or is it more an extension of what you write and record? I mean what comes first, performance or putting out the CDs? I suppose I ask because of what I’ve heard by you, it seemed that something suddenly clicked for me as I watched Thank You, Magical Internet on YouTube. It seems like a song that needs to be done before an audience.
Daphne Lawless: Robert Fripp of King Crimson has said playing live is a hot date; recording is a love letter. I do think that live performance is really what music is all about, in the sense of communication on all frequencies at once – there are vocal notes I can hit in front of a generous audience that I can’t hit anywhere else. It’s also terrifying and expensive, and if I get it wrong it’s very embarrassing and can’t be wiped from the timestream. Come to think of it, the same can be said about hot dates.
I’m glad you like the performance video. The comedy gigs were a lot of fun, but I suppose I got annoyed after a while at the idea that people were digging the keyboard gymnastics rather than my words.
Lawrence Burton: I think you actually can wipe bad gigs from the timestream. Just tell everyone they were great until they can’t be bothered to argue any more.
I get the impression you keep quite busy what with Vostok Lake and The Stacks, and Chaos Marxism, and I’m pretty sure other stuff I don’t know about; so I was wondering how or if all these strands feed into each other?
Daphne Lawless: Certainly, everything I do is at least theoretically part of an interconnected great work of causing something real to change in our memetic environment. Whether it has a hope in hell of success is a different matter, but it keeps me off the streets. Have you read The Revolution of Weightless Music? It gives some clues as to how it might all fit together.
Lawrence Burton: A hearty toast of beer drunk from the skull of an enemy to pretty much everything you said in The Revolution of Weightless Music, but where to start? I always found it inspirational that Genesis P. Orridge – even though it’s him – said something along the lines of the punk groups were claiming you only needed three chords to start a band, but Throbbing Gristle took it a stage further in suggesting you don’t even need instruments. I find it odd how as music has become potentially more democratic, more accessible, less reliant upon a vast budget or names and faces to shift product – as we see with the anonymity of much dance music – suddenly we’re all back in 1978 and it’s four fucking blokes with guitars doing something that sounded piss poor even then! Pardon my swearing but I truly loathe the workmanlike bloke-rock of indie music as it stands, not least because it seems to represent some sort of reset point for the collective cultural imagination, something akin to the factory settings. One of my all time favourite groups was Vice Versa around 1980, before Martin Fry replaced David Sydenham and they turned into ABC: drum machine, two wasp synths, microphone, copycat echo and what few songs they actually recorded still sound amazing even now, which I would put down to the ideal of portability. After Vice Versa I just can’t get why anyone would still want to be Herman’s Hermits.
Daphne Lawless: Everyone keeps telling me I should listen to Throbbing Gristle or Psychic TV. I saw a documentary about the Sheffield bands and I think I liked what I heard about Vice Versa on that. I also thought the original Human League were surprisingly interesting.
Lawrence Burton: Throbbing Gristle had their moments, but I don’t know – I suspect you’re doing just fine as you are.
Daphne Lawless: To get why rock music is trapped in cultural stasis, you must realise that this is not the 1970s where amateurish weirdos could put any crap on vinyl and nonplussed cigar-chomping corporates would put it out just on the off-chance that someone might be crazy enough to buy it. Rock music is now an acceptable – and therefore very strait-laced – career path that school guidance counsellors will put you on to; and that’s precisely why the young people keep playing it. There’s a whole infrastructure set up to nurture talent which can sell zillions of records precisely because it sounds just like everyone else, and a whole infrastructure set up to keep it happy and to keep any rebellion confined to stagecraft. It sells to kids; it sells to their parents and even grandparents who can remember when rock music was rebellion.
Modern rock music, much like fascism, is the form of rebellion with the content of conservatism. Kids these days are still listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin because they were pretty much the acme of development of rock ‘n’ roll thirty-five years ago. Would kids in the fifties have been caught dead listening to music from 1920? To ask the question is to get an answer. The form is zombified because the social movement which developed it was effortlessly bought out during the last economic slump. The same has been true of hip-hop since about 1992 as well. I think perhaps the new rock ‘n’ roll is internet trolling.
You’re right to put out that the forces of production of music are now totally democratic. Sadly, the forces of publicity are anything but, precisely because any prole can put out whole albums with five-hundred euros worth of equipment in their bedroom. There is so much out there that the gatekeepers in the mass media – and increasingly the blogs – are more powerful than ever. Which is, sadly, why it is not uncommon at all for just four paying customers to come to a Vostok Lake gig – and that is therefore why we don’t play live more often, even though it’s where our special magic really comes alive.
Lawrence Burton: You mentioned a performance with four people in attendance—
Daphne Lawless: We had quite a few more than that actually through the doors, mates of the support acts who demanded to come in for free…
Lawrence Burton: Hopefully an exception rather than a rule. I suppose the continuing success of four-blokes-with-guitars is down to it giving you something to look at on stage, but audiences seem less receptive to live music with either less people or less going on visually, at least in my experience. I can see the reason for your keyboard gymnastics, but get the point about the problem of people focussing on the wrong thing. So have you tended to play in environments more conducive to your sort of performance, or do you have other stuff going on, films or whatever, and do I really remember seeing pictures of backing singers somewhere?
Daphne Lawless: Your points about visual reinforcement are spot on the money. The backing singers were provided specially for a previous gig by the promoter. It actually worked well – almost too well, in that the songs with the backing singers achieved rapturous support while stuff where it was just me had people walking out with their hands over their ears – I wish I was exaggerating. Getting projected visuals is something I’m very interested in – if only I could find a graphic artist compatible with my vision prepared to work for free.
In my darkest moments I consider getting a keytar, although I generally consider them highly undignified and a product of the musical equivalent of penis envy; but you do identify what’s the course of action with the best chance of success – finding venues which aren’t rock bars. What those might be is a question open to further research.
Lawrence Burton: You do realise that had you gone down the keytar road you might now be sporting a mullet, wearing a jacket with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and singing in a phony US accent?
Daphne Lawless: Hey man, don’t knock the keytar, or the mullets, or singing in a phony US accent. I’m thinking of Geoff Downes rocking out on keytar with Asia in 1983. It is basically hideous, yet you cannot look away. That hot chick from Cobra Starship plays one so I thought maybe they were coming back in among the cool kids.
Lawrence Burton: By the way, well done on not singing in a phony US accent as do many English and even European artists. It’s always a pleasure to hear traces of regional heritage in anyone’s singing. I’m not sure if it’s true but I heard that The Proclaimers – if anyone remembers them – actually had to be taught to sing with their own Scottish lilt, Americanisms having become so ingrained.
Daphne Lawless: The sad thing about my accent is that, to some degree, I think I actually sing in a phony British accent. One British listener actually expressed surprise at my strawberries-and-cream Oxbridge vowels, which seems weird to me until you realise that I did spend a lot of my life in an English Literature faculty where that’s pretty much a universal tongue. The strongest Kiwi-isms in my recorded vocals would be the swallowed short i – New Zealanders are popularly reputed to eat fush and chups – and the disappearance of l at the end of words into a kind of w sound, which I think we share with the Scots.
Lawrence Burton: Returning to the evils of the music business, the corporate does appear to have become ruthlessly efficient at harvesting and assimilating any new development that arises whether it be art, music, or creative endeavour in general. I’d say that musically there are still astonishing new things emerging here and there from their own small sections of the underground, but I guess the only practical mass appeal anything can now acquire is when it crops up on a car advert. Maybe to some extent that’s why you’re not more widely known: listening to at least a sample of your music, whilst I wasn’t thinking wow – I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s actually quite difficult to see you pigeonholed in an easily marketable bracket. Some of the songs are very funny, but I don’t think of Vostok Lake as a comedy act; and I’ve seen it said that you have an eighties sound, yet it doesn’t seem like you’re necessarily a revivalist of any sort; and unless I’m listening too hard, some of the words are quite intimate and personal and yet as you suggested earlier, Vostok Lake doesn’t seem to share much common ground with the generic female singer-songwriter type, or at least not with the specific type that’s been so heavily promoted these last few years. I suppose this isn’t a specific question, but if you have any particular thoughts on this…
Daphne Lawless: I am very, very impressed that you have picked up on my essential marketing problem – that of categorization. Many people have exactly that I have never heard anything like this reaction, but sadly not all of them mean it as a compliment. One admirer described me as melodramatic electroclash, which sounds cool, but it’s meaningless if you don’t remember what electroclash was – early Ladytron, Fischerspooner, Goldfrapp circa Black Cherry; and even given that definition I’m not sure it’s appropriate to what I’m doing – your mileage may vary, of course.
Lawrence Burton: I remember electroclash and liked some of it, but I think Vostok Lake is interesting and different – or the words to that effect – might be the best description I saw posted on your MySpace page, or maybe the least misleading.
Daphne Lawless: I try slightly more fanciful descriptions, but I’m still not sure whether I get the message across. I mean – if you were trying to pimp Vostok Lake to your acquaintances, what would you say?
Lawrence Burton: The first thing that comes into my head is prog-cabaret but that sounds sort of lame and not very appealing now I think about it. Some of the songs are structured in a way that reminds me a little of some prog – it’s the time signatures and some of the higher melodies, whatever the technical term may be – I’m no expert, although I have a lot of Jethro Tull. There also seems to be something about the songs which suggests intimate audiences, although I don’t even know about the term cabaret which I’ve come to associate with bloody awful drag acts doing ironic covers of show tunes – and all the other stereotypes you care to cram in there – so I’m not sure quite how that fits either. I think I’ve mentioned this before but your music reminds me a little of Tuxedomoon for reasons I find quite difficult to pin down; maybe because it’s at the same tangent to everything else. I don’t think anyone quite knew what to call them either.
Daphne Lawless: Prog-cabaret does kind of work – I would certainly go to a performance advertised as such, but we’ve established that I’m in a minority. I’ve done drag, by the way. I actually won a prize for doing a semi-spontaneous routine to Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man. Funny that you should mention ironic covers – I have a tradition of doing covers of heavy metal songs just for the eye-popping factor, and for the deconstruction of the phallic mythology of rawk moozick, parenthetically. AC/DC, Motörhead, Dead Kennedys… I even had a go at Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog once and I’m told it was a success!
Lawrence Burton: Well, I also quite liked the a crazy woman and her synths tag on the Random Static site – if I got that right. It sort of implies that we don’t know what we’ll get but you can bet your life we’re going to remember it.
Daphne Lawless: The foremost neo-cabaret artistes on the scene at the moment are of course the Dresden Dolls, and I find them musically and stylistically very interesting – A Motorway Runs Through There Now on Magical Internet is intended as a direct homage. However, Amanda Palmer’s lyrics drive me up the wall. Mad Larry has accused Neil Gaiman of being cheap and manipulative and serving up just the kind of self-obsessed crap that teenage goths want to listen to. I think he’s being unfair, but I actually have quite similar criticisms of Miss Palmer’s lyrics. I do hear she’s currently doing a project with Gaiman, so there you go. But you may be 100% correct that I should be going for intimate venues rather than traditional music pubs. The problem is that intimate venues don’t tend to have a good PA and in-house sound engineer, and the point doesn’t come across out of a buzzy amp.
Lawrence Burton: I didn’t know anything about the Dresden Dolls but I looked them up on YouTube and must admit I was absolutely blown away by The Kill. I see why you think there may be some parallels there, although it’s true maybe they lay on the Emily’s dolls are all broken now schtick a bit heavily.
Daphne Lawless: You are absolutely right to note the prog influence on the structure in places. The intro to Girl Without A Past I actually sat down and worked out on paper, would you believe? It’s in an additive rhythm and a whole-note scale, for those to whom those words mean anything. As I think I’ve said, my actual songwriting craft is close to the quasi-prog quasi-singer-songwriter artists such as Peter Hammill, Kate Bush, and, yes, to a lesser extent, Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull – see Anderson’s Jig on Undinal Songs, so named after a listener said that sounds like Jethro Tull.
Lawrence Burton: I was once in a band playing proggy stuff in 7/13 amongst other time signatures, but I left because it got too complicated for my poor fingers; so I may be a bit attuned to that sort of thing, though you’ve happily stayed on the right side of the line dividing something that’s maybe complicated, but not overwhelming, and the stuff that’s just jerking about in 12.6/499 time because it can. Sorry but Gentle Giant spring to mind – how I hate them.
Daphne Lawless: Now, you see, I have a set of Gentle Giant albums complete up to 1976. Not my favourite band by any manner of means, but I have more respect for them than some of their pomp-rock contemporaries because they were actually trying to make things interesting, rather than just overwhelming. But you’re right that it got into complicated for the sake of complicated, and it resulted – at best – in music which is interesting but not particularly pleasant to listen to.
Lawrence Burton: Anyway, I’d say that approach certainly divides you from the obviously popular Dresden Dolls though as you don’t seem to be doing a look at me playing in 17/9 thing I guess that need not be an obstacle. I’m still thinking in terms of trying to make you famous here by the way.
Daphne Lawless: I am glad that I have been able to stretch myself a bit and yet not make it sound forced or pretentious. The title track from Small Group Psychosis, for example, is an eight-and-a-half minute narrative about mind-control cults, but I’m assured by my absolutely non-prog-tolerant partner – she likes late-period Genesis, for heaven’s sake! – that it doesn’t feel like it’s eight minutes long, which I assume is a good sign.
Lawrence Burton: This friend of mine, Andy – whom I’m beginning to become convinced is the English male version of you – burned me a Gentle Giant compilation in another effort to convert me and I just remember all my senses rebelling during some lengthy vocal piece that just seemed to be lots of mathematically ornate tra-la-las and pom-te-poms. True enough though, you can’t fault their ambition.
Daphne Lawless: The Gentle Giant track to which you refer seems to be On Reflection. I think it’s great, if only as an exercise in intellectual bravado. Gentle Giant could put more weirdness into four minutes than Yes could fit into an eighty minute sprawling epic. Bravo the seventies.
Lawrence Burton: The Gentle Giant track was something else which was, I think, about fifteen minutes long and consisted mainly of non-verbal vocalisation without any instruments, although there’s a very big chance I’m remembering it wrong. I prefer On Reflection of which the musical part was great, though the vocal interlude is still a bit too hardcore for me, I’m afraid.
Returning to the subject of your general marketability or lack thereof, listening to those MySpace tracks, I think my only criticism is that I just wish I could get my hands on your master tapes and take off some of that reverb. You use too much and you don’t need it.
Daphne Lawless: If you are referring to the tracks from the Anastasia EP, then guilty as charged. It was just after I’d upgraded to software which was capable of that kind of thing and I went over the top; also something to do with being kind of ashamed of my vocals and wanting to blur them. I don’t think that it’s that bad on the Magical Internet tracks, and I think I’ve done it better on Small Group Psychosis, although some preliminary listener reports are still saying needs less bottom-of-a-canyon vibe, but I ain’t going to re-record at this late stage. Notwithstanding that, anyone slightly less cloth-eared than me who wants to do a remix is more than welcome. All the Small Group Psychosis tracks are in Ardour format which I could slap on a disk.
Lawrence Burton: Probably the right choice with regards to reverb heavy earlier works – better to put all your energies into new material than go over old ground, I would say. I’d love to have a go at remixes but I’ve never actually progressed beyond a four-track portastudio that uses cassette tape.
Anyway, you mentioned elsewhere about having mainly 1980s or early 1990s equipment, hence the sound, and I find that this will often be the first thing anyone notices about a piece of music. Listening to your stuff a few times I must admit it soon becomes apparent that there’s a deal of elbow grease gone into the writing, and I wonder how you feel about whether there’s any gap between what aspirations you might have for a specific song as you’re putting it together and how it turns out, I mean whether you feel limited by technology or budget. For example the first thing that occurred to me with Girl Without A Past is how much I’d like to hear it done with a huge orchestra to giving it that full-on big screen feel for which it seems to strive, at least to my ears. Actually, the second thing that occurred to me upon listening to that song was that the Faction Paradox opera is in good hands.
Daphne Lawless: I actually recently invested in a big grunty synth of 1996 vintage – great Hammond organ sounds – so I suppose I’m coming close to catching myself up in time; but yes, certainly, the downside of the DIY ethic and the rejection of the music biz is that I can only create a vague approximation of the sounds and arrangements in my head with the resources and skills I have. I so wish I lived in the good old prog rock era when major record companies would pay for overambitious young people to hire orchestras and choirs and crap – pity the knights-in-armour-on-ice wankers ruined it for the rest of us. If the opera gets off the ground, I will try to get some kind of state arts funding so I can hire a bunch of music school undergrads to do the vocals. I am at the moment planning to make the instrumentation entirely electronic just so I can keep as much of it as possible in my own hands.
The words are, indeed, extremely intimate and personal, and they are generally the point of the whole act. As you might have noticed, I sing in a very clear and precise manner so they can be understood; which is one reason I did like the comedy gigs – people were listening to the words. They don’t do that at music gigs. On my first couple of albums I feel they they tended towards sad adolescent whining, but on the recent work I hope that I’ve come closer to making them more impersonal yet still getting the point across. I only ever did the comedy gigs because a workmate – a former professional comedian – suggested that I try it – the reason Magical Internet is coming out under the Auxiliary Choir moniker precisely because that kind of witty, cabaret-type stuff is not really what I’m about.
Speaking of which, I hope you like the album version of Girl Without A Past – your positive comments no doubt relate to the live version, on which I sing badly out of tune in places because my brain is too busying trying to remember the tricky keyboard lines. The album version will be better. I’ve cut some of the more elliptical lyrics too.
Lawrence Burton: Sad adolescent whining isn’t always so terrible and I suspect you are maybe a little too harsh on yourself in this instance. Some of the most hopelessly teenage lyrics I’ve ever heard have been on Nine Inch Nails records and yet for me they somehow work. I didn’t actually notice any out of tune vocals, although it should probably be recalled that I grew up listening to out of tune vocals.
Daphne Lawless: De gustibus non est disputandum about the lyrics, of course. All I can say is that I’m quite embarrassed that I can look at the lyric sheet of Undinal Songs and in most cases point out exactly which evil ex who done me wrong they were about. My personal standpoint is that Bauhaus wrote the perfect example of that genre in Crowds and any further elaboration is superfluous.
Lawrence Burton: I must admit I sometimes get a bit tetchy when people start talking about lyrics so good that they can be considered poetry, as though song lyrics are somehow a lesser medium and we’re all already agreed on that. To be honest, there are plenty of song lyrics that just break my heart in two but I enjoy very, very little poetry; and I prefer song lyrics as something one listens to rather than reads from a page which is after all not the intended medium. I suppose it’s probably healthy to look back on old lyrics and feel a twinge of embarrassment as that at least means you have some critical ability and are developing as an artist, although I’ve yet to hear any of your lyrics which warrant embarrassment.
Daphne Lawless: I suppose I’m a bit embarrassed that some of the early songs were actually designed as vicious put-downs, because surely that’s an unworthy motivation to make art. The Reason Why, from Undinal Songs, is a 100% true story. I ran into the person involved only once after that song was written. She said, ‘that was completely unfair.’ I replied ‘yes, it was meant to be.’ Petty, but satisfying at the time.
Lawrence Burton: Also, I realise your subject matter has become a little more universal. Although personally I’m quite partial to the occasional vicious put-down song – no matter how personal, a good vicious put-down will usually ring some sort of bell with someone.
Regarding the visuals, do you have something specific in mind when referring to a graphic artist compatible with your vision, or is it more a case that you’ll know it when you see it?
Daphne Lawless: As for the visuals, I am not 100% sure. I suppose my prog-rock roots are showing again in that I do think that the kind of thing that Pink Floyd were doing 1973-77 was very good – getting the point of the music across, and avoiding the look at me star syndrome. I suppose what I really want to do is musical theatre – the point is not me, the point is telling a story or getting over a vibe.
Lawrence Burton: Have you considered films? Maybe something put together with camcorders and a PC and then projected?
Daphne Lawless: I’ll use films if I find a keen film-maker. I don’t have any preconceptions.
Lawrence Burton: Do I recall you mentioning having been classically trained? The general composition and performance of your songs don’t really suggest something you just stumbled across whilst messing about with Chopsticks.
Daphne Lawless: As to my classical cred, I was taught up to Grade VI piano by a little old lady, and later did stage one composition and harmony and counterpoint at University. I don’t actually listen to Western concert tradition music for fun, unless you count Wendy Carlos’s work, but if you do want to do anything that’s more interesting than three chords and a cliché, you’ll have to think outside the square sooner or later.
Lawrence Burton: Going back to the subject of getting bums on seats, I realise that aside from obviously Split Enz, and the completely obscure Crawlspace label, I’m absolutely ignorant about New Zealand music. You’re in Wellington aren’t you? I mean how is the local scene there? Are there like-minded supporters or is it a struggle to get yourself heard over whatever other people are doing? I suppose I’m just wondering if you’re finding yourself having to go against an established grain, so to speak.
Daphne Lawless: I’m actually in Auckland now precisely because I found the Wellington scene impossible to deal with. But there are no like-minded supporters – with the exception of the management of Random Static Music. I’m going against every grain I can think of. Overwhelmingly, the reaction I get is baffled indifference – expressed in sentiments such as sounds eighties and that’s really… interesting. One big problem is that the equation electronics equals dance music is very firm in people’s heads – they file Ladytron under dance at my local record shop. The only artist anything like me in this town that I know of is Bachelorette, who’s significantly more mainstream than I am. Sometimes I think that if there were any supportive audience community anywhere in the world, I would be there as quickly as I could learn to speak Tagalog or Latvian or whatever the bizarre local language was.
You linked the video of One Step Ahead, actually one of my favourite latter-period Enz songs because of Eddie Rayner’s gorgeous keyboard counterpoint. Eddie Rayner is of course one of my personal heroes and a model of exactly how synths should work in a pop song. Probably not a lot of non-Antipodeans know this, but before Neil Finn joined, Split Enz were actually a prog band with a highly theatrical stage act. Their first album, Mental Notes – the original 1975 Australasian version, not the re-recorded 1976 British version – is one of the big influences on me.
I’ve heard of Crawlspace Records but I’ve never heard of any of the artists mentioned on that blog, with the possible except of Children’s Television Workshop, although of course there may be some confusion there.
Another piece of the puzzle is the Flying Nun label bands of the late eighties and early nineties, or at least a subset of them. Look Blue Go Purple’s entire recorded output is available on a single CD which you can probably, er, acquire somewhere perfectly legally. Same goes for the Chills, especially the Brave Words and Submarine Bells albums, and the Able Tasmans are also worth a listen. My partner heard their Hold Me 1 and commented sounds like something you’d write.
Lawrence Burton: I liked the Able Tasmans a lot, and I can see your partner’s point by the way.
I’m somehow quite glad you liked Split Enz – I wouldn’t say they were my all time favourites but they did some great albums. Even last year during a relationship crisis I’d find Missing Person running through my head as I walked home, taunting me with the suggestion that I should just not go home. For a song recorded in 1981 or whenever, that’s some staying power. As a point of interest, I actually had Crowley in a Previous Life going through my head when I woke up this morning.
Daphne Lawless: I think that the new version of Crowley on Small Group Psychosis is mixed in a much superior manner, so you have that to look forward to.
It’s kind of hard to live in this country and not dig Split Enz. The Finn brothers are near to royalty, and the rest of the guys in the band are generally still highly placed in the local music industry.
Lawrence Burton: At the risk of hammering this whole how to make Vostok Lake famous angle into the ground, have you ever considered performing with more people, as in getting others to play certain parts. I realise that would turn you into a band in the more conventional sense and you’ve already spoken on that subject. I guess I’m still thinking of the live angle because sadly there does seem to be a degree of prejudice regarding, maybe not so much solo performers – as in one person with a guitar or piano or whatever, as solo performers using either tapes or programming to compensate for not having four pairs of hands. Have you more or less always been a solo performer?
Daphne Lawless: I played in several groups when I was younger. As I think I mentioned elsewhere, I have an unpleasant personality to go with my very singular musical vision so it was absolutely impossible to find collaborators who were compatible on anything but a superficial level. I would happily work again in a heartbeat with anyone who was compatible – there’s no reason why there couldn’t be more people in Vostok Lake – but I can’t even find people who’re close enough to my musical vision to play on the same bill, let alone play on the same stage or on the same album.
Lawrence Burton: I noticed something called Girls in Space on one of your sites and wondered whether that was more collaborative?
Daphne Lawless: Girls In Space was just a women’s open mike night, at which I discovered in spades how much people hate and fear the one synthesizer on a line-up of eight warbly acoustic guitar acts.
Lawrence Burton: Is there anything you specifically aspire to doing but remain unable to do by virtue of not having household name money to play with?
Daphne Lawless: To be absolutely blunt, if I had household name money I would record in a proper studio with a talented engineer who knows how to operate state of the art equipment. Oh, and get some more vocal training. And also pay talented film-makers and stagecrafts people to design a properly theatrical live set. And then take some months off to write the opera, hire professional singers and dramaturges; so I suppose the answer to your question is everything I’m doing now, only not amateurish.
Lawrence Burton: Just out of the blue, did you ever hear Steve Harley? Not sure how good a guess that would be in terms of kindred spirits, but his music seems like something you might appreciate.
Daphne Lawless: The only thing I’ve actually heard from Steve Harley to this point is him singing lead on a Rick Wakeman solo album – yes, I know, I have repented.
Lawrence Burton: My dad used to listen to Criminal Record – I think that’s what it was called – endlessly when I was growing up so I have a soft spot for him, plus that story about all his trays of takeaway curry lined up across the keyboard during a Yes gig sort of makes up for the capes and wizard hats.
Daphne Lawless: Criminal Record is one of his best, as a matter of fact. Steve Harley sings on one track on 1984, on which Tim Rice wrote the lyrics – a deadly combination if I ever heard one. If you’re interested in more hilarious stories of the curry-on-stage form, you could check either of his memoirs, Say Yes and Grumpy Old Rock Star. The time he smuggled an authentic KGB officer’s uniform out of Soviet Russia in the eighties is also a good one. The problem with Wakeman is that he’s got truckloads of talent, a great sense of humour, and no sense of style or subtlety. Nevertheless, you have to respect him in that, even though he’s a Thatcher-loving tax-haven-frequenting Tory son of a bitch, he played a gig in Cuba and told the howling masses of US Republicans to get lost when they whined.
Lawrence Burton: I’m losing track here. Small Group Psychosis is the one you’ve been working on for some time, right? I take it this is due soon?
Daphne Lawless: Small Group Psychosis is indeed the new album, which has been recorded and just needs a wash and its armpits shaved before I release it on the world. It’s taken seven years to write and record because I have had other things to do in my life – politics, my doctoral thesis, arguing on the intarwebz, etc. The actual recording that you will hear only began in April 2008, and was mainly done in a hell of a rush over the last Christmas break.
Lawrence Burton: With the Auxilliary Choir CD you’ve developed a much more professional studio sound since the tracks I heard previously, which makes some of my earlier questions seem a bit dumb with hindsight, but never mind. So what exactly is your recording set-up?
Daphne Lawless: The current equipment is:
– a consumer-standard PC laptop (upgraded from a 2003-era PC desktop).
– Ubuntu Studio open-source operating system.
– USB midi and audio boxes of a generic nature.
– Ensoniq MR-61, Korg DS-8 and Kawai K1-II hardware synths (google them for the specs).
– a vocal microphone, stand and pre-amp.
– a ukulele.
Lawrence Burton: Ukulele! Get it on there before the album comes out! I love ukulele – great sound and very satisfying to play.
Daphne Lawless: Sadly, I don’t actually have a microphone capable of recording a uke yet, but that’s high up on the purchase list. You may be intrigued to know that one of the major motifs that have been swirling around for the opera was written on uke. The uke has a bad name, but it’s a very cheap instrument that’s very easy to play – weightless music strikes again. It’s the only instrument I can pull out at parties for singalongs, considering that I have been threatened with instant divorce should I buy an accordion. You know they make digital accordions now? Strange but true.
Lawrence Burton: Digital accordians? Now they’re just making things digital because they can!
Do you record most of it at home?
Daphne Lawless: It’s all done at home. Where am I going to find money to hire one of those studio dealies, and a talented and sensitive producer? This way, it might not sound particularly like music as we know it, but it damn well sounds like me.
Lawrence Burton: I think you’ve probably made the right choice with regard to sounding like you over the expensive studio approach. One advantage of being in a larger group is of course that everyone can chip in so the cost of a studio and CD pressing becomes relatively cheap when divided up. The disadvantage is having to play other people’s crappy songs and then finding you can barely hear yourself in the mix when the sodding thing finally comes out, thus leading to dissatisfaction and suspicions that one is only in the group as an extra wallet, not that I’m bitter or anything.
Daphne Lawless: There are some groups which are more than the sum of their parts, almost as if they formed a memetic superconsciousness – Robert Fripp is adamant that King Crimson is one of these. Others seem to be just leader plus sycophants, or creative types plus parasites. It sounds like you were in one of the latter.
Lawrence Burton: I take it you’re very much in favour of the whole downloading deal. Is there not a danger this might make it less likely for you to be able to sell physical CDs or do you not see it as making a lot of difference?
Daphne Lawless: The whole question of downloading versus CD sales is not unique to me, or indeed to music. You will have seen that Random Static just released Newtons Sleep in free digital format. The admittedly partial research suggests that putting stuff free online actually increases sales in this day and age – it works for Neil Gaiman, anyway. The next point is that since I will never get radio play in any known universe or galaxy – all right, the two times I’ve gotten a radio interview they’ve played a track, but that’s it – putting the stuff online in at least streaming format is the only way that the casual punter will ever hope to find Vostok Lake music. That is quite frankly a higher priority than – perhaps – a halving in my monthly sale of CDs from four to two.
Lawrence Burton: That’s interesting about downloading perhaps even helping physical sales, and that’s not how I would have thought it worked at all. I tend to prefer CDs or something you can hold and it’s true that there are now quite a few things I’ve got as a result of first hearing them somewhere online.
Daphne Lawless: I still have a vinyl player myself and have no intention of giving it up. It’s funny that originally CDs were high-end audiophile products, but with the digital loudness war of the last twenty years, vinyl LPs have regained the status of what you listen to if you actually care about sound quality.
Lawrence Burton: What route first brought you to making music? I know you had the training and so on, although I suspect it may be an exception rather than a rule that this would necessarily lead on to the origination of one’s own material. Do you have a particularly musical background or was there some other thing that sparked it off?
Daphne Lawless: Music is in my father’s side of my family, although not in my mother’s. My grandparents had a battered old piano, and I was overjoyed to get lessons for it starting from age seven. I don’t think it was ever really an option. Music is how my brain works.
Lawrence Burton: I noticed a reference to This Town Will Never Let Us Go in the song Thinner. From what you’ve said in the past, I gather that the novel made quite an impression on you.
Daphne Lawless: Okay, basically, as you know, it was a coincidence that my record company happened to also be the people who took up the Faction Paradox mythos. I was given both books of Interference to read on holiday in Thailand in 2003 and it felt like someone had opened a window onto the world. Then later I came across Larry’s old blog, the 2006-2008 variation, and I read it, fascinated that the guy was coming up with almost precisely the same opinions on memetics and popular culture as I had been for ages. I don’t nearly agree with everything he said – as I think I’ve said elsewhere, he seems to have an elitist slant that if the proles aren’t taught to think by people like 1970s BBC programmers they will never figure it out for themselves, whereas I’m a commie and I don’t think anyone’s incapable of thinking and questioning, just out of practice in most cases. But in general, Larry’s memetic theories strike me as being right. And This Town is the best presentation of those theories – to make a truly repulsive comparison, it’s like The Fountainhead only not full of nasty, sexist crap.
Lawrence Burton: The Fountainhead – that’s Ayn Rand, isn’t it? For some reason I’ve heard that name a lot over the last month or so, but nothing which has inspired me to bother finding out more. Which is neither here nor there really.
Is Anastasia a recurring character by the way?
Daphne Lawless: As I said previously, Anastasia Moonshadow – Stacey to her parents – was invented for the song Weekend Witch back in 1999, and then I kept coming up with more ideas, the first three of which have their own EP. I was hanging around with neo-pagans at the time and I got a massive funny ‘cos it’s true reaction.
Lawrence Burton: To go back to the memes, this is clearly something you’ve considered at length. I probably asked before but did you read Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine? I was pretty impressed by it, although aside from some Daniel Dennet and something called Viruses of the Mind by an ex-Microsoft guy which was drivel – self-improvement crap trying to pass itself off as a theory – I’ve not read much further; but The Meme Machine actually changed my view of society and how culture works to a great extent. Just by way of example, one of those unresolved topics in archaeological circles is why our ancestors made the transition from a nomadic existence to settled farming given that the latter has consistently proven to be a much more difficult means of sustaining oneself and one’s family – harder work, greater investment of time and energy, less varied diet; and Susan Blackmore seems to have come up with the first explanation that I’ve read which actually works, namely memetics. It’s not so dry as that might sound but she really has been extraordinarily thorough. I think she’s also managed to piss off a lot of people which is probably a good sign.
Daphne Lawless: I’m going to go out and lay my hands on this Blackmore book as soon as possible.
Lawrence Burton: It’s published by Oxford University Press if that helps. Dawkins rated it but disagreed with a fair bit. Personally I think she’s right on the money. I suspect even if you end up disagreeing with it, you’ll get a lot out of it given your interest in the subject, so I’d be keen to hear your take on it.
In one of the darker corners of the internet I found a novelette you wrote in the 1990s. I didn’t realise you had written fiction. Was this something you just never came back to, or was it more a case of your energies going elsewhere?
Daphne Lawless: If you can dignify my sub-Douglas Adams adolescent scrawlings as fiction, I suppose so. I know my limitations – I am moderately good at drawing characters and writing dialogue, but I can’t actually design a coherent storyline to save my life. Which is why to this point I’ve bent my narrative talents to five-minute songs at maximum.
Lawrence Burton: There’s a track on Undinal Songs that actually made me cry a bit, although to be fair I was having a vulnerable sort of day.
Daphne Lawless: From what I know about you, I am going to pick that Two Swans got you weepy. Am I right?
Lawrence Burton: It was Sparks although Two Swans wasn’t so far off. I’ve been listening to it again, but on my stereo at home rather than on my discman at work and it really benefits from being through proper speakers rather than headphones or the crappy speakers on my PC. Considering how personal your lyrics appear to be you really have got a good sense of the universal. The situations you describe might not directly apply, but the sheer emotional force…
Daphne Lawless: Oh yeah, Sparks. That’s a good love song. I don’t write them very often. I’m going to release a version on the upcoming Esperanto EP.
What you are noticing with the speakers is me not having any clue what mastering meant in 2002 – for the layperson, it means making sure it sounds good on any kind of speakers.
Lawrence Burton: Sparks gets me in the same way as some Smiths or Banshees tracks have done, there’s a definite lump in the throat there. Otherwise my first impression of Undinal Songs was generally along lines already mentioned – the drums need to be louder, more bass, less reverb and so on; but the more I’ve listened the less important such things seem to be as most of it works on its own terms. I imagine the eighties tag must surely get a bit annoying as the more I listen the less fitting it seems, and to my ears a more appropriate reference might be Jethro Tull in terms of composition, and despite the many reasons why you don’t really sound like Jethro Tull.
Daphne Lawless: Yeah, ye olde Tull is certainly the big influence on the early stuff – considering that they were perhaps the ultimate prog-folk-songwriter act, and those were my big influences at the time. I was, as I mentioned, in an actual prog-folk band when most of the songs for the first two discs were written. Since then, I’ve been influenced much more by eighties electronica and the less ridiculous edge of gothic-industrial, which you can possibly hear coming in.
Lawrence Burton: Anderson’s Jig actually makes me wonder if you’ve ever been tempted into doing soundtrack work?
Daphne Lawless: Shit, I’d love to do soundtrack work. I hear that, in the professional sense, it’s a bitch of a market to break into though, like animé voice acting or something. I’ll totally soundtrack the first Faction Paradox movie. I should of course reiterate that I knew virtually nothing about soundmixing on the first two albums either, and I hope I’m learning as I go along.
Lawrence Burton: As an aside, do Jethro Tull really loom that large in terms of prog history? I only tend to mention them because they’re the one group of which I have a load of CDs, and I’m not sure if I’ve even heard anything by Yes to be honest. Does Kate Bush count?
Daphne Lawless: Of course Jethro Tull only did two proper prog albums – Thick as a Brick – generally considered a classic of the genre – and A Passion Play – generally considered an overwrought embarrassment – but, having single-handedly invented the prog-folk genre, they generally rank highly in potted histories of that period in the 1970s which until recently all music critics were obliged to denounce. I’m sure you’ve heard Yes, if only that abomination Owner of a Lonely Heart, and if you’re curious it’s all over YouTube; and as for Kate – well, yeah. Kate’s the point where prog and eighties electronic pop collide, and I suppose that’s always been where I’ve been heading.
Lawrence Burton: Ah yes – I have A Passion Play and I have real trouble with it; and of course, I remember Owner of a Lonely Heart. Wasn’t that the Buggles incarnation? I’m assuming it was because it didn’t sound that proggy to me, from what I can remember. I’ve heard a tiny bit of Gabriel-era Genesis and some of Discipline by King Crimson, which I liked though I guess not quite enough to rush out and buy it.
Daphne Lawless: The Buggles incarnation of Yes did the Drama album, and it rocks – if you can handle the fact that Trevor Horn sings on it. It’s more Yes than Buggles, classic prog with a good editor, let’s call it. Then they broke up, then they got back together with the old singer and a South African guitarist in leather pants, and Trevor Horn as producer, and that was 90125, the album with Owner of a Lonely Heart. It’s pretty much overproduced eighties arena rock – good if you like that sort of thing, which I shamefully do at times. I used to be a hardcore Yes fan, and liking Drama in that crowd is up there with supporting the works of Lawrence Miles in Doctor Who fandom – a good way to get into fights easily. Discipline is not the easiest King Crimson album to get into – worth the effort, but I would recommend newbies to start with one of the compilation albums which show a bit of every era, which are all entirely different from one another.
Lawrence Burton: I actually thought The Buggles were okay, and I even have a Bruce Wooley and the Camera Club record, but back to Vostok Lake, I was surprised at how short your albums tend to be. Is it a conscious choice to avoid an eighty minute CD with only half of it worth listening to, as seems to be the case with a lot of CDs; or is it more dictated by the songs, none of which sound like the sort of thing you’d knock up in an afternoon?
Daphne Lawless: The discs are short because I am not a prolific songwriter. Simple as that – I threw everything that I actually had completed and thought was fit for public consumption on those discs. In contrast, Small Group Psychosis is about an hour long, and Random Static did actually advise me to cut a song or else it would have been longer.
Lawrence Burton: I’m not sure how you feel about analysing your lyrics at length but Our Mutual Friend sounds like a metaphor, although I’ve yet to work out quite in what sense, which probably means it isn’t, right?
Daphne Lawless: I really want to hear your theory now.
Lawrence Burton: God – I honestly don’t know. I suppose I was wondering if the friend might be an abstract, an addiction or something. It reminds me of things I’ve tried to write where the subject is something regarding which I am absolutely never going to spill the beans, although I could be reading too much into it. I do like songs to have a certain degree of room so you can read yourself into them.
Listening to the Auxiliary Choir CD I noticed the mix does sound more considered. To be honest, having now heard those earlier discs on decent speakers rather than tiny headphones, I’d say you did a pretty reasonable job for someone who was still getting the hang of that side of it. I think I’m most finicky about percussion, and your rhythms and programming have really caught up with the rest of it – good sound too, plenty of bass without turning it into a south-east London BMW trunk-banger.
Daphne Lawless: The Magical Internet album was a combination of my attempt to play comedy gigs, and the challenge of writing and recording an album from scratch in a month. I spent the first eight days writing the lyrics from scratch, on the sole basis of would this go down well in front of the comedy gig audiences?, and then wrote the music as compositionally simple as I possibly could. It was on that basis that Random Static suggested it shouldn’t go out under my formal name, if you get the meaning. It certainly proves that I can write what John Lennon called newspaper songs and put them out quickly and easily. But, yeah, it’s not exactly Spike Milligan comedy – it’s supposed to be amusing, catchy and straightforward, as opposed to the labyrinths of meaning and grand strategy that go into my proper album.
Lawrence Burton: I must admit the term comedy album made me wince a little as to me it suggests The Chicken Song and you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps posters. Yet it works, and got a few laughs out of me. I suppose being as your serious songs aren’t entirely po-faced anyway, it’s probably not such a vast stretch, at least not on par with Sisters of Mercy’s Max Miller covers album.
Rick Wakeman came to mind, possibly due to his being mentioned earlier, but certainly because of his wackier moments – I’m So Straight I’m A Weirdo, which I actually quite like, plus bits of that album my dad couldn’t stop playing. I mean comic music that isn’t necessarily full-on lyrical custard pies every other line. Maybe the Bonzos would be a better example.
Daphne Lawless: As I say, I rate Wakeman as a raconteur much more than a musician. You are no doubt remembering The Breathalyser from Criminal Record with Bill Oddie from the Goodies on lead vocals – I refused to give a blood test, so they went and took the urine out of me…
Lawrence Burton: Oh God – it all comes back to me now!
Daphne Lawless: Anyway, while I do like the Bonzos’ work – and of course Neil Innes’s work with the Pythons – I suppose my own methods of composition and performance are more subtle, deadpan even? I realised that I could actually get a great reaction at the comedy clubs by talking much more slowly and quietly than I usually do between songs, and then going completely over the top – dynamics, you realise. Talking slowly and quietly makes them think you’re a real nutter rather than just putting it on.
Lawrence Burton: I suppose I’m looking for some sort of possibly lazy comparison here, some parallel to Vostok Lake. The nearest I can think of might be – and again this probably occurred to me mainly because I know you like her – some of Kate Bush’s stranger moments – both The Dreaming and There Goes A Tenner impressed me for the obviously ludicrous accents contrasting with the fact that both songs are pretty damn amazing almost in spite of themselves.
It’s very late and I no longer have the faintest idea what I’m talking about.
Daphne Lawless: The irony of course is The Dreaming is not supposed to be funny at all, it’s a serious socio-political comment on the dire state of the indigenous peoples of Australia. I will walk across hot coals for Kate, but I will not defend her pretend Aussie accent. On the other hand, I think you might be onto something with the Tenner reference. That’s a song that tells a story, and what I am, deep down and fundamentally, and much like Ian Anderson for that matter, is a storyteller-in-song. Every one of my songs, except for the occasionally highly personal love song, tells some kind of story, and of course sometimes those stories are funny.
Lawrence Burton: I certainly noticed the storytelling element, not least because if it’s something which informs much song writing at the moment, then it’s not really present in anything I get to hear and so stands out at least for me; and most obviously in the Anastasia songs. I was once emotionally involved with a sort of lightweight variation on Anastasia so there are some familar reference points there.
Daphne Lawless: I think everyone has met and probably had sex with Anastasia at some point. She’s a loa or something, like that cartoon raccoon in This Town Will Never Let Us Go. Sadly, what with the shifts in the corporate infosphere, she’s probably an emo kid now rather than a goth.
Lawrence Burton: Did you ever build up any sort of following amongst the goth-pagan set? I just wonder because I suppose if so then any following you have must be a pretty mixed bunch by now.
Daphne Lawless: I have sadly never had a following of any kind, unless you count debt collectors. As I think I mentioned, at this level your music is utterly irrelevant – the question is how many of your mates you can get to turn up, and I have no mates.
Lawrence Burton: Well, of my own mates, Eddy responded with actually it’s not bad, sounds like Neil Young singing Arcade Fire songs with a drumbox and a couple of synths, and my long lost uncle who popped up out of nowhere about two years ago said sounds like I trod on the cats balls…must do better, Lawrence; so the fight goes on.
Daphne Lawless: Sometimes I wonder if I’m like Sophie Devereux from Leverage and I really do suck really badly and no-one’s polite enough to tell me; but I suppose if I had a Canadian accent I’d sound kind of like Neil Young, although his lyrics are better than mine. And never having heard Arcade Fire before, ten minutes research on YouTube suggests that the melodies and arrangements are intriguingly similar. Maybe if I told people I was Canadian I’d do better.
Lawrence Burton: Nothing wrong with your music, it’s the rest of the world. Actually it’s pretty unusual to get any sort of compliment out of Eddy so at least you know when he does say something positive, maybe there’s something in it. His reviews, given in response to things over which I have slaved for months, usually comprise a shrug and it was fucking shit, mate.
How has the comedy material gone down live? Your Auckland National Anthem actually drew a few chortles out of me despite my having none of the reference points.
Daphne Lawless: Well, you’ve seen the footage of playing Thank You Magical Internet live – tends to go down great guns. I’ve only played Auckland National Anthem once, and the Auckland audience seemed to get it, or at least the first two verses. There’s another one, which hasn’t been recorded yet, with the subtle title of Office Work is Fucking Boring. People seem to like that one as well. The Anastasia songs also work well, but only in front of hip audiences of goths or neo-pagans who near to wet themselves at the references. One of the reasons I’ve re-recorded Crowley for Small Group Psychosis is to eliminate a couple of the more obscure in-jokes.
Lawrence Burton: Oh look – the TV is on with the sound turned down and it’s something about those Russian Vostok rockets: spooky!
Daphne Lawless: The Vostok Lake synchronicity bus is slowing down outside your front door. Please remain calm and do not attempt to resist.
Lawrence Burton: I notice a few names that have yet to turn up here amongst your stated influences, namely Depeche Mode, The Sisters of Mercy, Gary Numan, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and so on. I must admit that aside from the instrumentation, I just don’t hear any trace of those in what you produce. I like the line about a fight between Tori Amos and Gary Numan leading to you, but otherwise I don’t really see it.
Daphne Lawless: The eighties drum machine acts you list are mainly there for attitude rather than compositional similarity. The whole issuing manifestos, trying to be one step intellectually ahead of the fanbase kind of thing, rather than the actual sound. The exception is Depeche Mode, which is there for the vibe of the thing – the disappointed romantic edge.
Lawrence Burton: And you play football…
Daphne Lawless: Well, it combines healthy exercise with socialisation – two things I’d very rarely do if left to my own devices – plus it’s an outlet for my aggressive and confrontational nature. All goalies are a bit nuts anyway – see David Icke – so I don’t stand out.
Lawrence Burton: I think that’s why Andy used to do karate.
Daphne Lawless: I did aikido for four years, but of course that’s the other kind of martial art, the roly-poly rather than the kicky-punchy. You keep making me think I should write to your mate Andy since we have so much in common.
Lawrence Burton: I think he would definitely appreciate hearing from someone with a few similar musical reference points, and who puts an equivalent amount of effort into their songwriting. Speaking of which, Small Group Psychosis is possibly your best album yet by a long shot. I really like a dead thing and the title track.
Daphne Lawless: The title track I am very proud of. It’s the closest I’ve come to the classic prog-rock that I loved as a teenager – and gives you a hint of what the opera might sound like. The other track you mention is the other end of the scale – the closest I’ve come to early-Siouxsie-style punk. I’ve only ever played it live once because it just about gave me an emotional breakdown live on stage.
Lawrence Burton: I know you mentioned something about iffy production, but I really think you’ve nailed it this time, particularly with some of the rhythm. I prefer drum machines to sound either completely synthetic – that TR606 sound used on loads of techno records for example – or samples so close to a live sound that it takes a moment for the listener to realise there’s programming involved. The middle ground of drum machines that sound a lot, but not quite like drums can steer dangerously close to the one-bloke-in-a-pub-doing-hits-of-the-sixties thing, but there’s no danger of that on this one, and there are some nice touches with tom or possibly tabla sounds quite low in the mix. So just what did you do this time that you hadn’t done before? It’s really difficult to identify what sets this album apart from the previous ones.
Daphne Lawless: The sound quality is a combination of hardware improvements, software upgrades and new skills. I probably shouldn’t get too technical, but since the first two discs I have:
– upgraded to a professional-quality open source studio software, as opposed to the budget product used on the first two discs which allowed four tracks of audio with no real-time audio effects.
– learned the basics of those two indispensable words for sound recording, compression and mastering.
– bought a gruntier hardware synth, which is responsible for the gorgeous piano and organ sounds.
The first two discs were all software synth, by which I mean sounds that any decent cellphone ringtone could improve on in this day and age. How did I dare release such a rinky-dinky, toytown product? A combination of ignorance and the arrogance of youth, I suppose. The Sisters of Mercy’s first record was pretty crap as well.
Lawrence Burton: Well done on the compression thing. I never quite got that, myself. It sounds good for percussion but always messes everything else up when I try to use it.
Daphne Lawless: Glad you like the drum sounds, although I frankly would have said some of them come pretty close to that unpleasant middle ground you talk about. The tabla sounds you’re picking up on are probably in the instrumental and in Army of Light – those come out of my new hardware synth and you’re right, they are an important element of the mix. As a side note, Yonder Lies The Sea – which is clearly one of the best songs and the best productions – was made almost entirely on my oldest hardware synth, Raewyn, pictured with me on the front page of my website. She’s 1989 vintage but she was just good enough. The drum machine is extremely basic and repetitive but I think it suits the song.
Lawrence Burton: Oh yes – Army of Light – nice heartbeat feel to the rhythm on that one.
Daphne Lawless: Army of Light is my song for the sci-fi fans. To be honest, I still think a couple of the mixes could have been improved – I’ll leave you to guess which ones – and the bass end still sounds a little weedy throughout, but on the whole it is a good job for weightless music. I feel a bit uncomfortable about having so many hardware boxes at the moment, because ideally weightless music should mean just being able to plug a MIDI controller into a laptop and be able to carry an entire world of music in a small backpack. The other thing is, when it’s just me on the stage, being surrounded by black plastic boxes is almost Pink Floyd’s Wall between audience and performer come to life. In contrast, as you might have seen in the Magical Internet video, with a minimum of equipment I can put more drama and non-verbal communication into the act. But now that I think I have the recording sussed, I can start putting more thought into the live act.
Lawrence Burton: I’m always interested to hear how people do things, although I’m a big fan of boxes you plug in over virtual boxes on a screen – mainly just because of those few years when everybody suddenly converted to Cubase and everything sounded the same for a while.
Daphne Lawless: You’ve put your finger on an essential problem with commodified music – the nature of commodities is that they’re all identical, so if a new commodity for making music comes out, of course that music will be kind of cloned for a while until people learn to hack the system. Exactly the same thing happened in 1983 when the Yamaha DX-7 synth came out. You heard its electric piano patch – in particular – on every record for a few years. Which is a benefit of using open-source and slightly-obsolete tech, if you want to be original.
Lawrence Burton: Kalla Kalla Amrika stood out as a track that sounds like there’s a more immediate Split Enz influence than usual – I think I’m thinking of The Coral Sea here.
Daphne Lawless: You’ve got the wrong track on True Colours – it’s Double Happy that I’ve put through a mock-Middle Eastern filter there – sorry Eddie – but as Gary Numan put it: what’s all this ‘original’ con?, we all live in the same museum, we all rearrange the same old song.
Lawrence Burton: Were you aware that Teachers keeps threatening to turn into drum & bass, unless it’s just my ears.
Daphne Lawless: I know very little about young person’s dance music, although I did go through a phase of listening to dubstep a while back. But Teachers – which I’ve been playing ever since I did my first solo gigs in 2000 – is kind of a preview of what Vostok Lake goes to the nightclub might sound like. I think it’s successful – you can’t go wrong with Laughing Lenny, frankly – and I might do more like that in future.
Lawrence Burton: I seem to have run out of half-decent questions, unless you have strong feelings about your favourite colour?
Daphne Lawless: Blue. No – yellow! Aaaaaargh!